By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
December 8, 2009
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Bill Stewart said Sunday that his football team will spend this week lifting, running and studying. West Virginia will resume practice on Saturday and Sunday before finals week and will continue to practice after finals before breaking for Christmas.
||Coach Bill Stewart gives his team encouragement during West Virginia's 24-21 victory over Rutgers last Saturday at Rutgers Stadium in Piscataway, N.J.
The team will regroup in Jacksonville, Fla., on Dec. 26 to begin final preparations for its Jan. 1 meeting against Florida State in the 2010 Konica Minolta Gator Bowl.
“We have to get ready for finals,” said Stewart. “This is going to be a very demanding and tough academic week.”
In the meantime, while most of his assistant coaches are out on the road recruiting, Stewart is hitting the banquet tour. His first stop is New York City for the National Football Foundation Awards Ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
Linebacker Reed Williams is one of 16 finalists for the William V. Campbell Award, presented to college football’s most outstanding student-athlete.
“This guy means so much to me,” Stewart said. “I went to school with his mother at Fairmont State and I’ve known his dad for 30-plus years. This is a great, great family and to see what he’s done it’s just a tremendous feeling for me and his family. Not many people thought this kid could play college football, but I did.
“After all of these nice honors he’s getting and the way he’s played, I couldn’t be prouder of him if he was my own son.”
Also being recognized is former West Virginia University quarterback Major Harris, who will officially be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame next fall.
Stewart will then fly down to Jacksonville for a Konica Minolta Gator Bowl press conference at the Jacksonville Hyatt Regency early Wednesday evening.
There Stewart will get an opportunity to visit with a coach he has always held in the highest regard: Bobby Bowden.
“I came here as a little, skinny old kid out of Magnolia High School in New Martinsville in 1970,” said Stewart. “It was Coach Bowden’s first year as head coach at West Virginia and how honored I was to be in his daily, weekly and certainly seasonal presence in those days. He’s one of my heroes. He’s always been one of my idols and he’s an icon in college football.”
Stewart realizes his West Virginia football team will be playing an emotionally charged Florida State team in the Gator Bowl.
“You know how Coach Bowden always gets those guys ready to play,” Stewart said. “I saw it firsthand here as a player. I’ve seen him over the years at Florida State and he will have them ready as only he can do. He’s the greatest. He’s the master and the best at it. It’s going to be a real, real challenge and I know they’re going to want to go out with a real bang for Coach Bowden.”
There are plenty of West Virginia ties to this year’s Gator Bowl. In addition to Bobby Bowden, who coached six seasons at WVU, Bowden has two-time former WVU assistant coach Rick Trickett on his coaching staff. Head coach in waiting Jimbo Fisher grew up in Clarksburg and FSU associate athletic director Andy Urbanic is a Bethany College graduate.
“When I was at Salem College and I went to his high school Coach Urbanic treated me as if I was from Penn State, Pitt or West Virginia and I never forgot that,” said Stewart. “Coach Urbanic is a class act.”
Stewart said going up against so many people he knows personally makes the game that much more interesting.
“These are great, great coaches and people,” said Stewart. “This is going to be really special because it’s like you are going to be playing family with all of the West Virginia ties.”
The turning point of the 2009 season was probably the South Florida game when West Virginia unquestionably had its poorest performance of the year in a 31-19 loss to the Bulls. Stewart said his team made a pact in the locker room after the game.
“That night in Tampa when I looked into those young men’s eyes and I saw tears and the hurt we grabbed hands and said, ‘We will take a vow and by God they will remember November.’ That wasn’t just talk,” Stewart said. “That was heartfelt. It was passionate.”
Since then, West Virginia's only loss was a 24-21 defeat at fourth-ranked Cincinnati.
Necessity forced West Virginia to play with predominantly five offensive linemen the entire year. Stewart said he has never seen that done before and he hopes it will never have to happen again for his program.
Stewart credits Strength and Conditioning Coach Mike Joseph’s position-specific lifting approach for helping them get through a grueling 12-game regular season schedule.
“We changed our lifting two years ago,” Stewart explained. “That’s why we don’t have any more shoulders, backs and hamstrings. My golly we had 14 hamstrings in one year. We’ve changed all of that. Our strength program right now is on top of it as it’s ever been.”
Last year with quarterback Pat White running the offense, West Virginia produced 4,685 yards of offense in 13 games. This year with Jarrett Brown under center the Mountaineers have managed 4,579 yards in 12 games. A mere 106 yards separate the two offenses.
Jock Sanders is going to need a big Gator Bowl to set the school record for single season receptions. Right now Sanders trails school leaders David Saunders and Shawn Foreman by seven receptions with 70. Sanders has 28 more catches than Alric Arnett, the next closest player on the team.
The Big East Conference typically announces its all-conference teams the following Wednesday after the conclusion of the regular season. I don’t get a vote, but here is my best guess on the major award winners:
Offensive Player of the Year – Mardy Gilyard
Defensive Player of the Year – Lawrence Wilson #
Special Teams Player of the Year – Mardy Gilyard
Coach of the Year - Brian Kelly
# Who do you pick for Big East defensive player of the year? The Big East has awarded a defensive player of the week 14 times this year and 14 different players have won the award.
Connecticut’s Lawrence Wilson leads the conference in tackles, Connecticut’s Lindsey Witten leads the league in sacks, Syracuse’s Doug Hogue leads the conference in tackles for losses and West Virginia’s Robert Sands leads the Big East in interceptions.
I guess you have to go with Wilson despite the Huskies finishing last in the Big East in total defense, giving up an average of 382.4 yards per game.
How about this for consistency? Since 2002, West Virginia has not lost more than two games in conference play, including consecutive 5-2 seasons in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. Since 2002, West Virginia is 43-12 in Big East play.
From 1991-2001, the Mountaineers were a very pedestrian 40-35-1.
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